Links to Online Clips

While at Charles Schwab, we launched a brand journalism site called “Main Street Stories” that covers people, products, and industry and societal trends, both in and out of the financial services business. The following links will take you to a few of the stories I’ve posted to the site over the past year or so:

Southwest Star of the Month: Mark Schmidt

After a busy week as the station manager at Indianapolis International Airport, Mark Schmidt can’t wait to get behind the wheel. Unlike your run-of-the-mill family sedan or sports utility vehicle, however, Mark’s ride produces more than 900 horsepower, hits speeds approaching 180 miles per hour, and can cover a quarter mile in less time than it takes most people to get buckled in and adjust their mirrors.

Fear not, Indiana State Police — the car in question is “Nadine,” a National Hot Rod Association “Super Comp” dragster and, outside of his affection for his wife of 25 years and his job of nearly 20, it is his true love. It is his dedication to those three passions, in fact — family, work, and auto racing — that has defined his life for more than three decades.

“The things that make you successful in racing — hard work, a sense of urgency, and commitment — make you successful at Southwest Airlines,” Mark says.  “The parallels between the two are amazing. As a result, I’ve used a lot of what I’ve learned at work in my racing, and vice versa.” The two worlds are so intertwined, he says, that oftentimes he finds himself shifting between his roles as a leader of 54 Employees, as a driver of an award-winning dragster and, earlier this year, as a member of Indy car driver Buddy Lazier’s Indianapolis 500 pit crew.

Take Southwest’s famed 20-minute aircraft turns, for example. To empty an arriving plane of passengers and cargo, and then load it again with people, luggage, supplies, and fuel in less than 20 minutes takes tremendous teamwork and skill. “I tell my coworkers all the time: a 20-minute turn is just like a pit stop,” Mark says. “An Indy car can’t roll out of the pits with only three wheels, and one of our planes can’t roll away from the gate until it’s fully serviced and ready to provide a safe and comfortable environment for our Customers. Everyone has to do their jobs to make it work.”

Mark’s career at Southwest began when he was hired as a ramp agent at El Paso International Airport in 1977. After leaving to attend college and briefly considering a career in real estate, he realized the combination of family, culture, and opportunity at Southwest was too powerful to resist. “Once I left, I knew that I really wanted to come back,” he says. “I knew that I had left something special.”

Since returning, he has worked his way through the ranks as an operations agent, supervisor, and manager before getting the call in 1991 to lead the station in his hometown of Indianapolis. He hasn’t looked back since. “It has been a dream come true to come back home and contribute to the success of our awesome employees and our station here,” Mark says. “And, hopefully, to lay the groundwork for even better things to come.”

This article appeared in Spirit, the former in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines.

Southwest Star of the Month: Steve Heaser

Southwest Employee Steve Heaser is a career counselor’s nightmare.

He has been a disc jockey, helped compile one of the “Top 100” lists for Billboard magazine, and muses that, given his choice, his ideal job likely would involve designing roller coasters. His interests run from music and art to gourmet cooking, holistic therapies, and travelling with his wife, Jennifer, and their five-year-old daughter, Hannah.

Throughout his nine-year tenure at Southwest Airlines, in fact, he has managed to give new meaning to the airline’s unique philosophy of “hire for attitude, train for skills.”

It is a career that began, normally enough, with a classified ad.

After spending most of college and the ensuing years in what he calls “a young man’s game” — the music industry — the crazy hours began to take their toll. He considered graduate school. And then one day, he picked up the newspaper.

Southwest was looking for people to work at its Dallas Reservations Center. Although Steve had no experience in the aviation field, he did have an interest in computers, and he saw the opening as a chance to get his foot in the door at a company known for rewarding individuality.

“I remember thinking, ‘Southwest is a big Company. Surely they have lots of computers,’” Steve says, jokingly. What he didn’t realize was, Southwest also had lots of applicants. “There were hundreds of people in the room with me. I knew I had to do something a little different to stand out.” Recalling an ad that featured Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher dressed as Elvis, Steve went home, gathered some photos he had taken on a trip to Graceland, scanned them into his computer, and designed an “application” spoofing the connection between Herb and The King.

The job was his. After working as a Reservations Agent for a few years, he moved to the Employee Communications Department at the airline’s headquarters in Dallas as its first graphic designer, where he has helped nurture the quality and visual impact of Southwest’s internal publications for more than six years. He now serves as the department’s team leader for a group of graphic design and Intranet specialists.

As the webmaster for FreedomNet—the internal computer network used by Southwest’s 30,000-plus Employees to access a wealth of Company news, benefits, departmental information, job opportunities, and more—Steve has managed to harness his curiosity and talent yet again to develop a compelling, cutting-edge tool.

All this from a guy who once had a guidance counselor tell him he would never be happy working at a large Company. “Well, I’ve never been happier,” Steve says. Hanging above his desk is a personalized reminder of the value of following your intuition. Written by hand on a framed poster, it says, “Steve, thank you for being an authentic and aesthetic genius!” Signed, “Herb.”

This article appeared in Spirit, the former in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines.

Southwest’s LUV Theme

Southwest’s Spirit inflight magazine

Southwest Airlines, you might say, isn’t just a Company founded “at” Love (Dallas’ Love Field Airport, where the airline first took off in 1971), it also is a Company founded “with” love. Nearly everywhere you look at Southwest, this becomes evident. From its “LUV” ticker symbol on the New York Stock Exchange to the heart in the center of the official corporate logo, in fact, the love theme has been present in Southwest’s advertising and marketing programs, its hiring efforts, its charitable choices, and even its aircraft paint schemes for more than 30 years.

To understand how this all started, perhaps a little history is in order. After announcing their plans to begin an intrastate Texas airline in the late 1960s, Southwest’s founders immediately were drawn into a series of legal battles. Undaunted, the upstart airline charged ahead. But the going wasn’t easy. Court proceedings take time and money – two scarce commodities for any fledgling company, let alone an airline that didn’t yet own a plane, and hadn’t carried a single customer.

As a result of these legal struggles, however – most of which Southwest eventually won – something interesting occurred. A unique culture was formed. A business idea became a shared quest, bonding together a band of less than 200 Employees. To establish an identity and set their airline apart from the crowd, these early Southwest Employees sought to develop a unique personality for their Company. In other words, if this airline were a person, what type would she be? The answers came easily: Independent. Free spirited. Irreverent. Sexy. Fun. A heart was incorporated into the airline’s first logo, and Flight Attendants took to the skies in hot pants and go-go boots. The “Love Airline” was born.

The advertising budget in Southwest’s first year of operations was $700,000 – half of which was spent in the first month. Two-page color ads sprang up in daily newspapers, often using the word “love” as many as 15 or 20 times. Early press releases referred to Southwest’s small fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft as “Love Jets.” Customers could walk into the airport and purchase their Southwest tickets from “Love Machines,” while inflight snacks were called “Love Bites.” “Love Stamps,” which could be redeemed for “Love Potions” (or drinks, for the uninitiated), were distributed to all Customers. LUV definitely was in the air.

Although times have changed over the past three decades, and the word “love” largely has disappeared from Southwest ads and marketing efforts, the emotion’s concept has become intertwined in the very fabric of the Company. Each year, Southwest holds the “LUV Classic” golf tournament to benefit the airline’s primary charity, The Ronald McDonald House – known as “The House that Love Built.” During the Gulf War, Southwest sponsored a program (on Valentine’s Day, fittingly) that gave thousands of Customers and Employees the opportunity to send messages of love and support to our troops overseas. The program’s name? LUVGRAMS.

In the corporate world, this outward expression of a rather private emotion is not a common thing. But then, Southwest has never been a common company. “We are not afraid to talk to our people with emotion,” Southwest Chairman Herb Kelleher told a gathering of Employees last year. “We are not afraid to tell them ‘I love you.’ Because we do.”

This article appeared in Spirit, the former in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines.